March 26, 2017 — Lisa Barstow
When Nancy asked me to present this sermon on the subject of loss I wondered if it was something I wanted to spend much time on. After all, due to loss I have given grief many, many hours of my life. But then I read the following words by Francis Weller from his soulful book The Wild Edge of Sorrow:
Sorrow is a sustained note in the song of being alive. To be human is to know loss in its many forms. This should not be seen as a depressing truth. Acknowledging this reality enables us to find our way into the grace that lies hidden in sorrow. We are most alive at the threshold between loss and revelation; every loss ultimately opens the way for a new encounter.
When grief from loss is expressed it bonds us with humanity and connects us more deeply to ourselves. From the moment we are born and lose the sanctuary of the womb, to the time when we take our final breath and leave this incarnation we experience loss after loss during our lifetime.
For me, the most profound losses have been the early passing of loved one’s. After losing family members I felt anger (which is an expression of grief) that I had been cheated out of the years of living with them I always assumed I would have- and that I thought were rightfully mine, and theirs.
Now, so many years later after an intimate relationship with loss I am able to understand the difference between pain and suffering. Initially, when we lose someone we love, whether it be to death or emotional separation such as divorce, there is visceral physical pain. It plants itself in the body like a fire before you have a chance to deprive it of air. Then emotions of grief take over and suffering begins. This is the human condition.
As a child I was promised a beautiful life, and for the most part that has been true. A child does not understand the meaning of suffering however. He or she must grow into a more conscious adult in order to recognize that loss is as much a part of the story as beauty is.
When my first husband Peter died at 39 we had been gifted with a beautiful son 18 months earlier. Adrian brought his 2 teenage sisters and me great joy in the midst of our grieving. In those days acceptance wasn’t easy to find. Why did this happen? He was too young. He won’t know his son, and worse, Adrian will have no memory of his father. The girls won’t have their Daddy there to help guide them as they become women, to walk them down the aisle, or to welcome his first grandchild.
These are the thoughts that are inevitable when one is in the pain of loss, especially at a young age. Then as time and life intervene the acute pain turns to sadness and then, hopefully, acceptance finds a place in the heart.
As an aside, I’d like to share with you a remark my granddaughter Allison made when she was around 11 years old. She was talking about the sorrow she felt for not having known her grandfather Peter- then she paused for a moment, t said, “but if I had known Grandpa Peter I wouldn’t have known Grandpa Bill.” I believe that this is what Francis Weller meant when he wrote: “We are most alive at the threshold between loss and revelation; every loss ultimately opens the way for a new encounter.”
With the divorce and early deaths of my parents and my husband by the time I was 37 I had lived the many stages of grief- needing, after each loss, to give enough time to feel grief, let go of grief and time for grief to let go of me. I was lucky because I had been graced with a deep faith and could feel God’s Love, no matter how much loss I was living with. When the healing of acceptance began to permeate my body, mind and spirit I became aware of a much larger vision. I could not point to a moment when this happened. Perhaps it snuck in during dream time?
This healing acceptance, took me out of myself and into the force of God where there is no beginning and no end. When this happened I could step away from the confines of thinking that I had any control over life and recognize, finally, that actual loss doesn’t really exist. It is an illusion.
Poet John O’Donohue describes this stage so beautifully:
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.
I wonder if the message Jesus brought to humanity: “the Kingdom of Heaven is Within,” was telling us that we can transform the pain and fear of loss into love and acceptance, and if we can do this we will live in the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth?
I believe that in order to do this we can find help from a Christian term called kenosis, which is the Path of Self- Emptying Love. Jesus taught this when he was on the Cross and dying into God’s Love. This time of Lent is when we go to our own personal wilderness and empty ourselves. Kenosis is not the same as pushing away, instead it is a gentle letting go, When we practice it our habitual stoic protectiveness shuts down. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and author writes that kenosis is “non-clinging, and that it is a gateway to a world that is abundant, coherent and compassionate. Kenosis is not a moral tool but a visionary one.”
This is not an easy task because I think we humans are more often than not addicted to suffering. I don’t mean the true suffering of so many around the globe that is caused by extreme poverty or the threat of physical harm due to war and famine. What I am referring to is egoic or psychological suffering that is created by inner states of division and that separates us from God. We hold on to what we know and when we decide to let go and empty ourselves of the “dross,” or the unwanted ego material that has built up over the years, we experience another kind of loss, the loss of who we thought we were. And this can be very disorienting and frightening, often taking us into the dark night of the soul. However, if we do the work, the reward will be that we find ourselves living in a more awakened state of spiritual consciousness. Instead of suffering, if we practice kenosis we will be gifted with the “indwelling presence” or “living remembrance” of Christ’s light. I believe that this is one of the lessons Jesus came here to teach us.
With this work, and it is continual work, we are being asked to surrender our own will and become entirely receptive to God’s Divine will. It is an actual energetic emptying and with conscious practice it will begin to happen. After a while one will notice the ego obstacle isn’t as present. The egoic suffering, so long held on to, will no longer be as relevant and this will leave more room for God. It is like a rebirth, flowing gently into our lives as we develop and evolve spiritually.
Now, I am sure we all believe that the God Force is Love. Jesus taught us that we have been created in God’s image and therefore we too are Love. As 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13 reads: if I have not Love I am nothing. It is the constant stream of God’s Love that will lead us to serenity and peace within. This Love is vibrational energy that we are immersed in whether we are conscious of it or not. I truly believe that all of humanity has been born into the gift of continual Love. It never dries up and when we open to it we are carried down its river to an ever deeper Love. And it is this deeper Love that transforms loss and helps us realize there truly is no such thing.
The scripture that Barbey read illustrates the healing power of Jesus. He tells the blind man: While I am in the world, I am the light of the world. I feel sure that this is why we Christians commit to keeping Jesus alive in our hearts. We know that if keep him alive in this world we will not be blind. Instead we will dwell in the light. We will live in his promise. It is his profound gift to us all.
I’d like to close with John O’Donohue’s beautiful prayer “For Absence”:
May you know that absence is alive with hidden presence, that nothing is ever lost or forgotten.
May the absences in your life grow full of eternal echo.
May you sense around you the secret Elsewhere where the presences that have left you dwell.
May you be generous in your embrace of loss.
May the sore well of grief turn into a seamless flow of presence.
May your compassion reach out to the ones we never hear from.
May you have the courage to speak for the excluded ones.
May you become the gracious and passionate subject of your own life.
May you not disrespect your mystery through brittle words or false belonging.
May you be embraced by God in whom dawn and twilight are one.
May your longing inhabit its dreams within the Great Belonging.